Empowerment of women and adolescent girls

The Role of Civil Society in Empowering Women and Adolescent Girls of South Asia: Challenges and Prospects

- Dr Surendra Kumar Mishra*

Empowerment of women and adolescent girls implicitly assumes that in all societies, men control women—or, to be more precise, men control at least some of the women of their social class, particularly those in their households and families. Hence, women and girls are a “class” in the two-class gender stratification system, that is governed by shared norms and values, and has a cultural as well as relational and/or material component. It recognizes that individuals belong to and are strongly influenced by social processes that are integrated by common ideological or normative systems. These ideological systems make prescriptions about many fundamental principles of social life, for example, how to organize families, how to allocate wealth among different groups or individuals, and how to organize relations between males and females etc. Thus, the perceptions, tastes, and choices of individual decision-makers are strongly influenced by the nature of the ideological or normative systems to which their social processes subscribe and into which they have been socialized. For those interested in development, then, understanding gender systems—not just the situation of individual woman or girl—is critical. Therefore, empowerment of women and adolescent girls need to focus on the rights, obligations and resources granted to females versus males under different gender systems rather than on the characteristics of individual woman/girls or groups of women/girls.

The role of civil society in taking it forward is the key to development and hence, is the matter of great concern in the resource-poor countries around the world. Despite constitutional safeguards, economic development and changes in social attitudes, women and girls in the region continue to face various difficulties and discriminations in many aspects of their lives. Many, if not most, of these difficulties can be traced to cultural and social norms that have persisted in maintaining a patriarchal society in these countries despite several guarantees of gender equality in the constitutions of most of the countries in the region. This problem has been recognized by civil society organizations (CSOs) during the start of this millennium. This was more or less reflected in framing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000. In some of these countries, even when laws defending the right of men to use violence against women are repealed, the culture that created them continues to exert a tremendous influence over behaviour; the situation is worst across many countries stretching from the Mediterranean to the edge of South Asia, especially in Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. However, during the last two decades, things are changing fast in favour of women and girls, but not up to the desired extent by the world order. Time has come to discuss all this, taking the challenges and prospects into consideration and to propose a clear pathway right now to achieve the set targets of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

Despite progress over the last twenty years, still gender equity and equality remain a distant goal, not an achievement for the region. The empowerment of women and adolescent girls is restricted to a flawed system of reservation and subsidization that is flawed yet becomes a necessary step for many of these countries in the region to help more women to enter the economic and political domains. Additionally, more independent women political leaders need to emerge without the assistance of political and influential families as a normal part of the decision-making process, who will take the agenda forward. Political measures and milestones may bring effective changes in the social and cultural beliefs; however, such changes cannot be imposed on a diverse and huge population through a top-down approach. Instead, change must come from within the individual, whose beliefs and actions in turn will help gender equity and equality to be achieved in the long run and in a more sustainable manner. To be precise, economic and political empowerment is not an end in itself; this will be sustainable when women-groups become stronger as a social force, which provides social status to members; to function as a forum for discussing shared problems; and becomes a power to reckon with for taking joint actions with men and force the society to bestow the leadership status to women without a quota system.

This write-up emphasizes on a pathway, where the processes will guide the broadening of choices, the expansion of options, and the provision of alternatives available to women and girls in determining the course of events, which will shape their own lives and determine their destinies. Thus, it is a process which enables them to change the balance of power in social, economic and political domains in society. A new pathway can advocate more for political empowerment of women and girls, i.e. giving them maximum participation in decision making processes and power sharing in the representative bodies, access to property, productive assets, common land and financial assets etc. Hence, all future efforts in improving their empowerment should focus more on improving the agency and resources dimensions. Here itneeds to deal with the deep-seated traditions, social and religious norms that hinder women and girls’ agency that is key to sustainable development goals in post-2015 scenario for civil society organizations. In nutshell, it includes the improvement of available resources and its effective utilization in an efficient manner such as better access to quality education, economic participation, enabling social environment, universal health coverage, favourablelabour laws, inheritance and property rights that are essential for continued progress in empowerment of women and adolescent girls of South Asia.

The Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in South Asia have a long way to go when things are becoming difficult for them in the emerging political scenarios of some of the countries in the region. Lack of clear political will, economic recession, social exclusion, and cultural intolerance are some of the challenges that they must face in coming ten years down the line. Special platforms are required to discuss these in detail and to chart out a possible pathway that might take the women and girls forward in overcoming these obstacles and help them to achieve their objectives by 2030 in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

*Dr Mishra, a Post-graduate in Social Sciences and Doctorate in Culture Studies has almost 42 years of field experience in Social & Behavioural Sciences Research and Communication. He served for nearly twenty years in academic institutions and 6 years in Europe as a Senior Fellow of UNESCO. For more than two decades in three continents viz. Africa, Asia and Europe, he has led several Civil Society initiatives in Health Innovation, Research and Communication, funded by major national and international donor agencies. He has authored 3 books and published more than 60 research articles in national and international journals. Till 2009, he was teaching &guiding the Post-graduate students of the Public Health Faculty at Jimma University, Ethiopia. Since 2010, he is mentoring many Civil Society Organizations and Academic Institutes in South Asia.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary are author's personal observations.

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